Learning about Politics from Mass Media and
Social Media: Moderating Roles of Press Freedom
and Public Service Broadcasting in 11 Countries
Chang Sup Park
and Homero Gil de Zu´~niga
Department of Communication (Journalism Program), University at Albany, The State
University of New York, USA;
Department of Communication, Democracy Research Unit,
University at Salamanca, Spain, Film/Video & Media Studies, Pennsylvania State University,
To examine whether mass media and social media relate to political knowledge, the
study draws upon an original survey of adults from 11 countries, the 2014 CESifo
DICE Report on public service broadcasting, and the 2015 Press Freedom Index by
Freedom House. Findings reveal that news use via television, newspapers, online
news sites, and social media is positively associated with political knowledge.
Furthermore, press freedom and strong public broadcasting strengthen the associ-
ation between news use (via both mass and social media) and political knowledge.
The findings suggest that the media system plays a crucial role in creating a political
learning environment even in this social media age.
For several decades, scholarly efforts to explain what increases political knowledge have
centered on individual-level predictors (e.g., Lewis-Beck, Norpoth, Jacoby, &
Weisberg, 2008;Zaller, 1992), or the effects of news use via mass media (Stro¨mba¨ck &
Shehata, 2010). Today, more and more people rely on social media for news. According
to Pew Research Center (2017),67% of Americans obtain news from social media.
However, research on the potential of social media as a political learning tool is still
scant, and findings are inconsistent (e.g., Dimitrova, Shehata, Stro¨mba¨ck, & Nord,
2014). In addition, most research about this topic has been conducted in the US, creat-
ing generalizability issues. Thus, this study first examines whether social media predicts
All correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Chang Sup Park, Department of
Communication (Journalism Program), University at Albany, The State University of New York, 1400
Washington Ave, Albany, NY 12222, USA. E-mail: email@example.com
International Journal of Public Opinion Research
CThe Author(s) 2020. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The World
Association for Public Opinion Research. All rights reserved.
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political knowledge across 11 countries by focusing on social media’s “network media
logic,” which is different from mass media (Klinger & Svensson, 2015).
The present study also examines the role of a media system in political learning. A
media system is a crucial component in society (Bogart, 2017). A media system can af-
fect political knowledge by fostering or depressing citizens’ incentives for seeking polit-
ical information, and as a result, citizens may learn about politics differently (Aalberg,
van Aelst, & Curran, 2010;Barabas & Jerit, 2009). The central argument of this study is
that individuals are more likely to learn about politics when they live in an environment
where the media system is favorable in providing political information to citizens
(Holtz-Bacha & Norris, 2001). Out of many elements of a media system, this study con-
centrates on press freedom and public service broadcasting, which have been linked to
political knowledge (e.g., Holtz-Bacha & Norris, 2001;Leeson, 2008).
This study has theoretical and practical implications, considering that press free-
dom around the world faces constant decline. For example, according to the 2019
World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), just 8% of the sur-
veyed countries have a media climate that can be considered “good” (Leung, 2019). As
commercial and digital media spread widely during the past several decades, public
broadcasters are losing their influence (Knight Foundation, 2017). Thus, examining the
role of press freedom and public service broadcasting in political learning is much more
important than ever before. Particularly, considering that in some countries social media
communication is often filtered or censored for political, cultural, or religious reasons
(Radcliffe & Bruni, 2019;Silva, 2019), it is imperative to examine how the media system
and social media news use work together in informing citizens.
The current study relies on three datasets: a 2015 survey of individuals in 11
nations, the 2014 CESifo DICE Report about public service broadcasting, and the 2015
Freedom of the Press Index by Freedom House.
Media Channels Matter in Political Learning
Media richness theory posits different types of media provide different levels of rich-
ness to the audience (Daft & Lengel, 1984), thus affecting political knowledge
(Dimitrova et al., 2014). Although, mass media offer a good opportunity for learning,
different media outlets can cause different impacts on political knowledge (Fraile,
2011). Print media generally deliver more substantial information than other types of
mass media and allow readers to control the pace at which they read the news.
Furthermore, the format and semantic organization of print news stories are related to
how people process the news (Neuman, Neuman, Just, & Crigler, 1992). Newspaper
use is consistently linked positively to acquisition of political knowledge (Stro¨mba¨ck &
Compared with print news media, television news takes simplified and visual-
focused formats, which may hinder viewers’ understanding (Robinson & Levy, 1986).
However, some studies show that television news may facilitate political knowledge gain
for more abstract information (Neuman et al., 1992), and can rival newspapers as a
political knowledge facilitator (Chaffee & Schleuder, 1986). Overall, the effect of
2INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PUBLIC OPINION RESEARCH
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TV news on political knowledge is not conclusive—some saw a positive or beneficial
impact (Papathanassopoulos et al., 2013), while others found a null or negative effect
(Fraile, 2011), mainly because television programs offer a more superficial way of
presenting the news.
Unlike traditional newspapers, online news sites offer hyperlinks to related stories,
which may help readers shape a deeper understanding about an issue. The gatekeeping
process and journalistic values found in online news sites are not much different from
those of offline traditional news media (Eveland, Marton, & Seo, 2004). For these rea-
sons, the literature generally reports a positive link between online news use and polit-
ical knowledge (Dimitrova et al., 2014).
H1: News use via newspapers and online news sites is positively associated with
RQ1: Is news use via television positively or negatively associated with political
Regarding the role of social media in political learning, optimistic (e.g., Gottfried,
Hardy, Holbert, Winneg, & Jamieson, 2017) and pessimistic perspectives (e.g., Shehata
& Stro¨mba¨ck, 2018) coexist, but scant attention has been paid to this topic. To clarify
the role of social media in political learning, this study pays attention to the concept of
“network media logic,” proposed by Klinger and Svensson (2015). First, social media
are equipped with Web 2.0innovations, which can give users the power to curate con-
tent (Park & Kaye, 2018). Because of the ease and convenience of accessing news, social
media can play a critical role as a news source (Hladı´k &
Second, social media provide a much higher level of interactivity than other
Internet-based media (Wolfsfeld, Yarchi, & Samuel-Azran, 2016). Interactivity features
of social media enable users to engage with the news, allowing them to comment on and
share the news. For example, Twitter offers various interactive features for engaging
with news, such as replying, liking, and retweeting. Interactivity promotes news use
(Friedland, Hove, & Rojas, 2006) and provides people with autonomy of controlling in-
formation processing (Merkt, Weigand, Heier, & Schwan, 2011), which can in turn re-
sult in an increase of political knowledge.
Third, the scope of news sources is wider in social media than in professional media.
Although most news stories flowing on social media come from professional news media
(Larsson, 2016;Wolfsfeld et al., 2016), a variety of alternative news providers, such as
citizen journalists, civic organizations, and individual citizens, also place newsworthy in-
formation on social media (Bruns, Highfield, & Lind, 2012), which makes social media
information-rich. Media richness theory postulates that information-rich media are
beneficial to the acquisition of new information (Carlson & Davis, 1998).
However, several studies report that reading news on social media is marginally or
barely related to gains in political knowledge. For example, because of the “partial con-
trol” nature of social media (Bode, 2016), users can face limitation in terms of the
amount and type of information they come across (Shehata & Stro¨ mba¨ck, 2018).
Sharing news via social media may boost political learning, but it is questionable sharing
takes places on the basis of a clear understanding of the shared information. Indeed, a
study shows that 59% of Twitter links are retweeted without actually being read
(Gabielkov, Ramachandran, Chaintreau, & Legout, 2016). Skeptics also point out that
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the excess of information on social media may increase the feeling of information over-
load (Park, 2019), driving users to become unaware of crucial facts and knowledge they
need to know. Considering the contrasting rationales and inconsistent findings, this
study poses the following research question:
RQ2: Is news use via social media positively or negatively associated with political
Media System Matters in Political Learning
A media system refers to “a set of media institutions and practices understood as inter-
acting with and shaping one another” (Seethaler, 2017, para. 1). Different media sys-
tems shape different information environments (Aalberg et al., 2010). The nature and
amount of news by the media varies depending on what kind of media system in which
the media are placed (Soroka et al., 2013). Drawing upon the literature (e.g., Hallin &
Mancini, 2004), this study concentrates on two indicators of a media system—press
freedom and public service broadcasting, which are believed to be closely related to pol-
itical knowledge (Holtz-Bacha & Norris, 2001;Leeson, 2008).
Press freedom. Undoubtedly, the media exercise a significant influence on public
opinion. For this reason, some authoritarian governments intervene in the media indus-
try. Governments can directly control the media sector by touching media ownership
and censoring content, or indirectly control the media by pressuring them to favorably
cover governmental issues (Leeson & Coyne, 2005). Leeson (2008)found that citizens
living in a more “free” media environment are more knowledgeable politically than
those in not free media environments. He found that “falling from the highest level of
media freedom in the sample to the lowest is associated with a 42% increase in political
ignorance” (p. 160). Schoonvelde (2014)also found that individuals living in a media
system that is free from government interference have a higher level of political know-
ledge than individuals living in a media system where government interference is
strong. Using the rankings by Freedom House, Gunaratne (2002)found a positive link
between press freedom and access to media content.
The aforementioned studies indicate that when government regulates the media in-
dustry tightly or controls news content, the amount of available information decreases
and some critical information that citizens should know is not offered. To the contrary,
where government regulates the media less and protects news media’s autonomy, a var-
iety of political information can be provided to citizens by the media. Additionally,
media outlets in a free press condition tend to be more active in investigating issues and
offering information that citizens demand (Whitten-Woodring, 2009). In short, citizens
living in a high press freedom society have more opportunities to become politically
Social media expand access to information and freedom of expression (Shahbaz &
Funk, 2019). In countries where press freedom is weakening, social media can become
an alternative information channel (Boulianne, 2015). In a nation where press freedom
is guaranteed, social media could feed new and different kinds of political facts from
international or foreign media outlets. But repressive governments tend to take advan-
tage of social media and try to influence public opinion, by utilizing paid trolls and
4INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PUBLIC OPINION RESEARCH
automated “bots” (Shahbaz & Funk, 2019). Indeed, quite many governments around
the world impose strict press laws and guidelines on social media (Pearson, 2013).
The above literature shows the potential of social media as a news source is closely
intertwined with the press freedom level of a country. Research suggests that the influ-
ence of social media should be examined together with the political context where social
media operate (Bailard, 2014). Based on the literature, this study tests the possibility
that press freedom as a country-level social structure influences the contexts in which
people access political news, and as a result, get politically informed.
H2: The association between news use via mass media (newspapers, TV, online
news sites) and social media and political knowledge is stronger in countries where
press freedom is strongly supported than in countries where press freedom is not
Public service broadcasting. Commercial media disfavor news and current affairs
(Aalberg et al., 2010). Commercial media rely heavily on the number of audiences be-
cause advertising revenues are decided by the size of the audience. For this reason, com-
mercial media tend to produce content that is instantly satisfying the audience, for
example, celebrity gossips or sports. On the other hand, commercial media do not prefer
news about democratic processes or public affairs. Indeed, a media system dominated
by commercial television does not to supply enough quantities of news about current
affairs in prime time when most people watch television (Aarts & Semetko, 2003).
Therefore, commercial broadcasting is less conducive to increasing citizens’ level of pol-
itical knowledge than public broadcasting (Jenssen, 2009).
By contrast, public service broadcasters are required to offer substantial and impar-
tial information on political matters (Soroka et al., 2013) because their mission is to edu-
cate, inform, and entertain citizens. One of the main missions of public service
broadcasters is to help citizens obtain the information they need to know as democratic
citizens, particularly information that they hardly get from commercial media. Public
service broadcasters also provide more “hard news,” which is about important social
and political issues, than commercial broadcasters (Toka & Popescu, 2009). Aalberg
et al. (2010)find that there are more news and current affairs information on television
in less commercialized media systems.
The contrasting features of public service broadcasters and commercial broadcast-
ers do not necessarily mean that living in a highly commercial media context exposes
citizens to less news about politics and public affairs. It is possible that other media,
such as social media, compensate for relatively low levels of TV news in commercial
However, the more commercialized a media system is, the more proactive citizens
may need to be to get meaningful news. Inadvertent or incidental exposure to the news
occurs more frequently in countries where public broadcasting is a strong component of
the national media system (Prior, 2007). Moreover, commercial media tend to neglect
hard news or treat it without much emphasis (Soroka et al., 2013). In a nutshell, the
quantity and quality of news varies systematically between public and private broadcast-
ers. Therefore, it seems that public service broadcasting has a potential link to political
Social media rely on their users to produce or share content, and few users regularly
produce news content related to public or political matters (Hjarvard, 2018). It is un-
likely that commercial media organizations devote themselves to publishing information
about political and public matters on social media. Instead, various mass media outlets
play a vital role as providers of public affairs content to social media (Hjarvard, 2018).
Public service broadcasters in Europe are indeed transforming their news services
to adjust to the social media age (Sehl, Cornia, Graves, & Nielsen, 2019). Based on
interviews with public service media in six European countries, Sehl and Cornia (2018)
found that public broadcasters view social media as an important opportunity for
increasing their reach to news consumers and have launched specialized social media
teams in their organizations. By distributing news content to social media sites, public
broadcasters can expect more traffic to their own sites and appeal to more audiences, es-
pecially young people who are getting away from hard news. Thus, public service
broadcasters increasingly take advantage of social media to promote and disseminate
their news content about public and political matters, consequently influencing users’
level of political knowledge.
H3: The association between news use via mass media (newspapers, television, and
online news sites) and social media and political knowledge is stronger in countries
where public service broadcasters’ market share is relatively higher than in coun-
tries where public service broadcasters’ market share is low.
Sample and Data
This study counts on a cross-national survey conducted in 11 countries including
Estonia, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Spain, the UK, the US,
and Turkey. Although the participating countries were chosen based on data availability
and convenience, we tried to maximize diversity in terms of press freedom and public
service broadcasting because this article aims to understand how those two variables
work in the process of political learning at the global level.
Nielsen implemented the survey online between September 14 and 24,2015.
Nielsen used stratified quota sampling techniques to create samples whose demograph-
ics match each country’s official census data. The total participants are 11,397. Each
country’s sample size ranges from 904 (Turkey) to 1,136 (New Zealand). The overall co-
operation rate is 77%(American Association for Public Opinion Research, 2011).
Self-report measures are widely used in communication research, but they have advan-
tages and disadvantages. For example, respondents may recall correctly their experien-
ces. Respondents also have a tendency to “look” good in their responses (Holbrook,
2008). People who have high levels of civic duty and self-efficacy tend to over-report
media exposure (Vavreck, 2007). Despite these issues, cautions in questionnaire design
may alleviate such drawbacks. For example, Prior (2009)recommends that surveys
“offer help with the estimation of news exposure” (p. 904). Researchers can also
“improve the likelihood of accurate recall by restricting the recall task to a short and
6INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PUBLIC OPINION RESEARCH
recent reference period and by providing recall cues” (Schwarz & Oyserman, 2001,
p. 138). The current study measured “news exposure” in a typical week, and assessed
“political knowledge” with issues that recently attracted the public’s attention. All items
used a 7-point Likert scale unless indicated otherwise.
Mass media news use. Respondents were asked how frequently they get news
from the following media sources: television (M¼5.31,SD¼1.66), newspapers
(M¼4.15,SD¼1.81), and online news sites (M¼5.21,SD¼1.58).
Social media news use. Respondents were asked how often they use social media
to (a) get news, (b) stay informed about current events and public affairs, (c) get news
about their local communities, and (d) get news about current events from mainstream
media. The four items formed a reliable scale (a¼.87,M¼4.30,SD¼1.50).
Political talk. Respondents were asked how often they talk about politics (a) face-to-
face and (b) online with their (1) spouse, (2) family, relatives, or friends, (3) acquaintan-
ces, and (4) strangers. These eight items were averaged (a¼.87,M¼2.74,SD¼1.21).
Political efficacy. Political efficacy was measured with two items asking respond-
ents to what extent they agree that (a) “People like me can influence government” and
(b) “I consider myself well qualified to participate in politics.” The two items were aver-
aged (Spearman Brown coefficient ¼.68,M¼3.59,SD¼1.06).
Political interest. Political interest was measured with two items asking respondents
(a) how closely they pay attention to public affairs information and (b) how interested
they are in politics. The two items were averaged (Spearman Brown coefficient ¼.95,
Political knowledge. This article adopts the definition of political knowledge used
in prior work: facts or information related to a political system that people can draw
from their memory to interpret and understand political events (Delli Carpini &
Keeter, 1996). Political knowledge was measured with three items (0¼Incorrect,
1¼Correct) that asked respondents general factual questions about an international pol-
itical actor (UN secretary general), an international institution (nuclear energy monitor-
ing), and a controversial global issue (global warming).
Correct answers were summed
and averaged (M¼.59,SD¼.32)(Table 1).
The following three items were used to measure political knowledge.
*Do you happen to know who is the current Secretary-General of the United Nations?
(1) Ban Ki-moon, (2) Kofi Annan, (3) Boutros Boutros-Ghali, (4) Joseph Blatter, (5) Don’t know
*What international organization is in charge of monitoring the use of nuclear energy throughout the
(1) The World Health Organization (WHO), (2) The United Nation Security Council (UNSC),
(3) The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),
(4) The United Nations High Commissioner for Nuclear Energy (UNHCNE), (5) Don’t know
*You might have heard some people talking about global warming. In your mind, global warming is:
(1) The idea that sun is getting closer the earth, (2) The idea that the earth’s temperature is increasing, (3)
A post-Cold War environment, described by a nuclear arms race, (4) When the global markets are increasing
petrol prices, (5) Don’t know
Demographics. We asked participants’ gender (52% females) and age (M¼43.37,
SD ¼15.50). Education was assessed by asking participants their highest level of educa-
tional achievement, ranging from 1to 6(M¼4.33,SD¼1.37). Socio-economic status
(SES) was rated with an item about how well off in society they are, on a 10-point scale
ranging from 1(the least well off) to 10 (the most well off) (M¼5.46,SD¼1.85).
Press freedom. The index for press freedom was obtained from the 2015 Freedom
of the Press Index by Freedom House (Table 2). Drawing upon data about 23 questions,
Freedom House assigns a press freedom score ranging from 0(best) to 100 (worst). The
score indicates which category each country belongs to: “Free” (0–30), “Partly Free”
(31–60), “Not Free” (61–100).
Public broadcasting market share. Data for public broadcasting market share
were obtained mainly from the 2014 CESifo Report about public service broadcasting.
CESifo Group4, consisting of the Center for Economic Studies (CES), the ifo Institute and
the CESifo GmbH (Munich Society for the Promotion of Economic Research) is an econ-
omy research group. This organization examines how the public service broadcasting in
each country performs in its national television market. The 2014 report shows that the
market share of public service broadcasters ranges from 3%(US)to62%(NewZealand).
First, we conducted one-sample t-tests to figure out how each nation’s press freedom
score differs from the grand mean of political knowledge. Then, multi-level modeling
was used to assess the relationship between news use and political knowledge and
to evaluate the between-country variance in the news use effect while including the
two indicators of a media system (press freedom index and public broadcasting
market share) as second-level predictors. Multi-level modeling is recommended
Zero-Order Correlations among TV News Use, Newspaper Use, Online News Site Use,
Social Media News Use, Political Knowledge, and Public Broadcasting
12 3 4 56
1. TV news use – .276*** .166*** .083*** .074*** .147***
2. Newspaper use – .174*** .081*** .389*** .181***
3. Online news site use – .301*** .206*** .105***
4. Social media news use – .148*** .076***
5. Political knowledge – .197***
6. Public broadcasting –
Notes. Cell entries are partial correlation coefficients, controlling for age, gender, education, SES (socio-
economic status), political interest, political efficacy, and political talk.
CESifo Group is a research group unique in Europe in the area of economic research. See https://www.
8INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PUBLIC OPINION RESEARCH
when data are organized at more than one level (i.e., nested data) (Tabachnick &
One-sample t-tests were conducted to assess differences between each country’s mean
and the grand mean for political knowledge (M¼.59,SD¼.32). High test statistics
(indicating above-average country means) are observed in Estonia (.66), Germany (.64),
Italy (.64), Japan (.72), New Zealand (.64), and UK (.63). Low test statistics are seen in
Russia (.53), Turkey (.47), and US (.49). The statistics of Poland (.58) and Spain (.57)
were not significantly different from the grand mean (Table 3).
Before testing the hypotheses and research questions, a series of model comparisons
was first conducted to determine whether the intercept and effects of mass media and
social media news use vary between countries. Taken together, the results show that a
random slope model is best fit to our data.
Because we mean-centered the covariates,
the fixed intercept (.59,SE¼.03,p<.05) can be interpreted as the grand mean of pol-
itical knowledge (Min. ¼0, Max. ¼3) adjusted at the mean of the predictors.
The coefficients for TV news use (B¼.12,p<.05,RQ1), newspaper use (B¼
.25,p<.001,H1), online news site use (B¼.20,p<.001,H1) are all positive. Using
news via social media also has a positive link to political knowledge (B¼.13 ,p<.05).
Additionally, this study conducted a series of hierarchical regression analysis for each
country. In all the countries, the coefficients of TV news use, newspaper use, online
news site use, and social media news use were positive.
Press Freedom Index and Public Service Broadcasting Market Share
Country Press freedom index Public service broadcasting
Estonia 16 19.0(2012)
Germany 18 42.8(2012)
Italy 31 (partly free) 37.0(2014)
Poland 26 32.4(2012)
Spain 28 14.7(2012)
The UK 24 53.7(2011)
Turkey 65 (not free) 3.3(2010)
Japan 25 20.0(2012)
New Zealand 19 62.0(2013)
The US 22 3.0(2008)
Russia 83 (not free) 32.1(2011)
Notes. Press freedom index by Freedom House (2015). Public service broadcasting market share by CESifo
Group Munich (2014) CES DICE report.
A fixed intercept null model (i.e., a model with no predictors and a fixed intercept) is compared with a
random intercept null model. Results show that a random intercept model is better fit to data than a fixed
intercept model (likelihood ratio ¼2,246.31,p<.05). Then, a random intercept full model (i.e., a model with
all predictors and a random intercept term) is compared with a random slope full model to determine whether
the effect for news use also varies by country. Results show that a random slope full model is better fit to data
than a random intercept full model (likelihood ratio ¼162.58,p<.05).
The hierarchical linear model models control for age, gender, education, SES, political interest, political
efficacy, and political talk. All controls are mean-centered.
The effect size of social media news use turns out to be small (r¼.15), meaning
that 2.25% of the variance of social media news use is shared with political knowledge.
The effect sizes of newspaper use (r¼.30) and online news site use (r¼.23) are also
considered small, explaining 9% and 5.29% of the variance of political knowledge, re-
spectively, but both are quite larger than the effect size of social media news use
H2was tested by adding a cross-level interaction between four types of news use
and press freedom (Figure 2,3,4, and 5). The interaction terms of newspaper use
press freedom (B¼.08,p<.05) and online news sites use press freedom (B¼.07,p
<.05), and social media news use press freedom (B¼.07,p<.05) are all positive
and significant. These results indicate that news use shows a stronger relationship with
political knowledge when press freedom is high, while news use shows a weaker rela-
tionship with political knowledge when press freedom is low. The analysis did not find
a moderation effect by TV news use (Table 4).
We tested H3by adding a cross-level interaction between four types of news use
and public service broadcasting (Figure 2,3,4, and 5). The interaction terms of TV
news use public service broadcasting (B¼.07,p<.05), newspaper use public ser-
vice broadcasting (B¼.08,p<.05), online news sites use public service broadcasting
(B¼.07,p<.05), and social media news use public service broadcasting (B¼.06,p
<.05) are all positive and significant. These results indicate that news use becomes
more strongly related to political knowledge when public service broadcasting is strong
in the market, while news use becomes more weakly linked to political knowledge when
public service broadcasting is weak in the market (Table 4).
Tests of Mean Differences between Each Country Mean and the Grand Mean for
Estonia .66 (.31)7.74*** (1,106)
Germany .64 (.32)4.28** (999)
Italy .64 (.28)5.84*** (1,021)
Japan .72 (.33)12.02*** (942)
New Zealand .64 (.33)4.52** (1,135)
Poland .58 (.31)2.25 (1,028)
Russia .53 (.34)7.38*** (1,097)
Spain .57 (.28)2.74 (1,012)
Turkey .47 (.31)12.37*** (903)
UK .63 (.32)4.37** (1,025)
US .49 (.30)10.60*** (1,118)
Notes. Cell entries are means (M), standard deviations (SD), test statistics (t), and degrees freedom (df)
from one-sample t-tests assessing the difference between each country mean and the grand mean for polit-
ical knowledge (M¼.59,SD¼.32). Significance values are indicated as follows:
10 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PUBLIC OPINION RESEARCH
The Relationship between News Use and Political Knowledge with and without Cross-Level Interaction with the Indexes of Press Freedom and
Strong Public Broadcasting
Variables Political knowledge
Random effects SD
Intercept .19 .18 .19 .18 .17
TV news use .06 .06 .06 .06 .06
Newspaper use .12 .12 .11 .10 .10
Online news site use .09 .08 .08 .07 .07
Social media news use .07 .07 .06 .06 .06
Residual 1.05 1.03 1.02 1.02 1.02
Fixed effects B (SE)
Intercept .59 (.03)*** .59 (.03)*** .59 (.03)*** .59 (.03)*** .59 (.03)***
Age .01 (.00).01 (.00).01 (.00).01 (.00).01 (.00)
Gender (1¼female) .35 (.06)*** .36 (.06)*** .35 (.05)*** .35 (.06)*** .33 (.05)***
Education .17 (.05)*** .14 (.04)** .15 (.04)** .14 (.04)** .14 (.04)**
Socio-economic status .11 (.03)*.10 (.03)*.10 (.03)*.10 (.03)*.10 (.03)*
Political interest .18 (.05)*** .18 (.05)*** .17 (.05)*** .18 (.05)*** .17 (.05)***
Political efficacy .19 (.04)*** .19 (.05)*** .18 (.04)*** .18 (.05)*** .18 (.04)***
Political talk .23 (.08)*** .23 (.07)*** .21 (.07)*** .21 (.07)*** .21 (.07)***
TV news use .12 (.01)*.11 (.01)*.12 (.01)*.11 (.01)*.12 (.01)*
Newspaper use .25 (.07)*** .25 (.07)*** .25 (.07)*** .24 (.07)*** .24 (.07)***
Online news site use .20 (.05)*** .19 (.05)*** .19 (.05)*** .19 (.05)*** .18 (.05)***
Social media news use .13 (.04)*.12 (.04)*.12 (.04)*.11 (.04)*.12 (.04)*
Press freedom .11 (.04)*.10 (.04)*.10 (.03)*.09 (.04)*.09 (.03)*
Public broadcasting market share .09 (.03)*.08 (.03)*.08 (.03)*.08 (.03)*.08 (.03)*
Variables Political knowledge
Cross-level interaction B (SE)
TV news use Press freedom .05 (.02)
TV news use Public broadcasting market share .07 (.02)*
Newspaper use Press freedom .08 (.02)*
Newspaper use Public broadcasting market share .08 (.03)*
Online news site use Press freedom .07 (.01)*
Online news site use Public broadcasting market share .07 (.01)*
Social media news use Press freedom .07 (.01)*
Social media news use Public broadcasting market share .07 (.01)*
AIC 15,726.29 15,744.86 15,663.25 15,674.65 15,622.33
BIC 15,805.73 15,834.33 15,813.48 15,801.90 15,814.49
2log likelihood 15,692.35 15,701.45 15,653.46 15,638.52 15,649.56
Notes. Cell entries are parameters from a random slope hierarchical linear model with a cross-level interaction. N¼11,397, Groups ¼11. AIC ¼Akaike information criterion;
BIC ¼Bayesian information criterion. (two-tailed).
12 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PUBLIC OPINION RESEARCH
Consistent with prior studies (e.g., Barabas & Jerit, 2009), the current study finds a
positive role of news use via television, newspapers, and online news sites in political
learning. Beyond previous studies, this study found that news use via social media
Effect sizes of news use via different media types.
Cross-level interactions between social media news use and press freedom and between social
media news use and public service broadcasting.
Notes. Strong press freedom: Estonia, Germany, Poland, Spain, UK, Japan, and New Zealand;
moderate press freedom: Italy; weak press freedom: Russia and Turkey. Strong public broadcast-
ing: Italy, Germany, Poland, UK, Japan, New Zealand, and Russia; moderate public broadcasting:
Estonia and Spain; weak public broadcasting: Turkey and US.
significantly predicts political knowledge. This finding can be substantially attributed to
the technological advances and “network media logic” of social media (Klinger &
Svensson, 2015). Social media are flooded with political information from both mass
media and alternative sources, which makes social media information-rich.
Furthermore, with the immense connectivity with networks, social media provide citi-
zens with sufficient opportunities to acquire political content. Some social media users
Cross-level interactions between newspaper news use and press freedom and between newspaper
use and public service broadcasting.
Cross-level interactions between television news use and public service broadcasting.
14 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PUBLIC OPINION RESEARCH
engage with news by summarizing existing news stories or adding interpretations and
evaluations of them, and sharing them with others, which can help news users’ compre-
hension of the news (Park & Kaye, 2018). Social media also have various highly inter-
active communication tools that enable users to engage with the news, such as sharing
Another theoretical contribution is the finding that press freedom and public ser-
vice broadcasting are important moderating factors that can explain better how political
learning occurs from news use. The analysis reveals that the relationship between news
use via mass media and social media and political knowledge is stronger in countries
where press freedom is strongly encouraged and protected. This result indicates that an
informed citizenry and an informed democracy are contingent upon strong press free-
dom (Coyne & Leeson, 2009). In a free media system, individual media outlets, includ-
ing social media, are less likely to be interfered by the government, and as a result, they
are able to produce more heterogeneous and less constrained information. This, in turn,
positively affects the level of political knowledge of the electorate as a whole. In other
words, a press freedom guaranteed media system is beneficial to motivating media out-
lets to produce citizen-satisfying, original, and diverse political information without fear
of being censored or restrained by the government (Lauk, 2008;Shahbaz & Funk,
2019). Accordingly, citizens living in free media systems have more opportunities to ob-
tain information regarding current events and political activities from both mass media
and social media than those living in a country with less press freedom.
If press freedom affects the diversity and availability of political information, it
should also account for some of the cross-national variance of political knowledge.
Indeed, the level of political knowledge was higher in places which Freedom House
evaluated as “free” countries, such as Estonia, Germany, and Japan. In those countries,
the correlation of news exposure and political knowledge was much stronger than
“partly free” (i.e., Italy) or “not free” countries (i.e., Russia, Turkey). One notable ex-
ception is the US, which ranks 22nd in Freedom House index. The US’s poor
Cross-level interactions between online news site use and press freedom and between online
news site use and public service broadcasting.
performance seems to be influenced by its extremely strong commercial media system
as explained below.
The moderating role of public broadcasting between news use and political know-
ledge is also a theoretically significant finding that demonstrates media system effects.
Studies have shown that news and information constitute a large share of the programs
in public service channels (Aalberg et al., 2010) because they are strongly expected to
serve democracy. In market-based systems, on the contrary, unregulated commercial
networks respond to market forces, offer news programming that is not deep enough or
comprehensive (Aalberg et al. 2010), and focus more on drama, entertainment, and
sports than on news and information (Jenssen, 2009). Furthermore, the recent commer-
cialization of television significantly reduced the proportion of political news and
increased “soft news,” removing “hard news” (Hamilton, 2004). In short, strong public
broadcasting makes it easy and convenient for citizens to access enough political infor-
mation to better understand political affairs.
Strong public service media are a good indicator of a healthy democracy. A 2017 re-
port released by European Broadcasting Union (EBU, 2017) found that in countries
where public service broadcasting is strong, citizens enjoy more press freedom. Public
broadcasting can form the values a nation seeks and the mindset of citizens who hold to-
ward their democracy (Dragomir & Thompson, 2014). As a result, it seems to follow
that public service broadcasting plays a significant role in providing political informa-
tion and promoting the spread of it.
Thus far, several studies have examined the role of press freedom and public service
broadcasting in political learning in the traditional media context, but little research has
looked into it in the context of social media. The moderating role of press freedom and
public service broadcasting deserves special attention in this social media age, where an
increasing number of people obtain news from social media instead of traditional media.
Social media create a different media environment (Klinger & Svensson, 2015) partly
because users can get news at one click from countless sources, including traditional
news media, and engage with news in an easy, convenient way (Park & Kaye, 2018).
However, social media’s information function cannot be separated from the environ-
ment surrounding them. For example, politically controversial information is often cen-
sored and filtered from social media in China and many of the authoritarian Middle
Eastern countries (Radcliffe & Bruni, 2019;Silva, 2019). A country where press free-
dom is guaranteed is likely to provide more diverse and substantive news content onto
social media, thereby enabling social media users to get informed about current issues.
Similarly, social media are not immune from the influence of public service broad-
casting. Indeed, today many public broadcasters are committed to providing news via
social media, making it an important political information source (Sehl et al., 2019).
Therefore, in public service systems which support public broadcasting and actively
regulate commercial broadcasters, people are more likely to encounter public television
newscasts with substantive news content about public and political affairs.
Taken together, the moderating roles of press freedom and public service broad-
casting suggest that media system effects may be as important as news consumers’ indi-
vidual characteristics (selection effects) and exposure to different types of news media
(media effects). From this study’s findings, it can be inferred that different media sys-
tems create a structural bias in favor of differing political information environments,
resulting in significant cross-national differences.
16 INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PUBLIC OPINION RESEARCH
This study’s findings also have practical implications. They propose a somewhat
contradictory, but feasible, task for a society when it contemplates a policy that is geared
to enhancing its citizens’ knowledge about political affairs. The moderating effect of press
freedom shows that free and independent media lead to a higher level of knowledge of
voters, which is a cornerstone of a representative democracy (Delli Carpini & Keeter,
1996). That is, if a government wants to encourage its citizens to engage in political proc-
esses, it should support media autonomy. On the other hand, the moderating effect of
strong public broadcasting demonstrates that a state’s support for public broadcasting
may work positively in informing its citizens of important political issues because public
broadcasters are a more reliable supplier of political news than commercial media channels
(Curran, Iyengar, Brink Lund, & Salovaara-Moring, 2009). Thus, this study suggests that
a society’s media policy needs to be designed to support both press freedom and public
service broadcasting if a government wants its citizens to be politically well-informed.
Limitations and Future Research
This study utilized two indicators of a media system. We suspect other indicators (e.g.,
political parallelism) may account for part of the connection between news use and pol-
itical knowledge, and we leave this possibility to future research. Another caveat is that
this study relied on a cross-sectional data which does not guarantee causality. Third,
this study tapped three items to assess political knowledge, but it took every effort to
maximize the reliability of the three items across the nations surveyed in this study.
Finally, social media was treated as an aggregate concept in this study, but it is possible
different types of social media can play a different role in political learning.
Despite several limitations, this study contributes to the literature by illuminating
the relationship of news use (via both mass media and social media) and political know-
ledge in the context of a media system represented by press freedom and strong public
This research was supported by Grant FA2386-15-1-0003 from the Asian
Office of Aerospace Research and Development. The authors are thankful to
Prof. James Liu and all other participants of the Digital Influence Project.
Responsibility for the information and views set out in this study lies entirely
with the authors.
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Chang Sup Park, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Department of Communication
(Journalism Program), University at Albany, The State University of New York. His